Skip to main content

In a ceremony that emphasized reconciliation, Grand Chief Ed John unveiled a report Monday that made 85 recommendations to improve the aboriginal child-welfare system, saying he hoped his work would help reduce the number of indigenous children in care.

Mr. John, who was appointed by the B.C. Premier last year as a special adviser, called for a sweeping overhaul of the current system, including potentially rewriting provincial legislation to require long-term placements through adoption or foster care, as well as millions of dollars in new resources. The provincial government immediately committed to adopting all of the recommendations within its jurisdiction.

But with indigenous children in British Columbia 15 times more likely to wind up in government care than their non-indigenous peers, those recommendations have a lot of ground to cover – and some critics are already concerned they will not be implemented in a timely fashion, or at all.

Related: B.C. boy put in foster care due to unexplained broken bones

Related: B.C. names Bernard Richard as new youth watchdog

Related: Victoria lawyers trying to ensure families in crisis have access to justice

"I have a lot of respect for Ed John in laying a road map for us – there are 85 recommendations, but who is going to monitor that to make sure they get implemented?" Melanie Mark, New Democratic Party MLA and opposition critic for Children and Family Development, said at the ceremony, which was held at the Musqueam First Nation.

Liberal Premier Christy Clark said the government is committed to meeting all of the recommendations in Mr. John's report that apply to the province – some are directed to the federal government – and work is under way on 40 of them, including additional training for delegated aboriginal agencies to develop "permanency plans" for children and youth.

Mr. John also recommended the provincial Ministry of Children and Family Development, along with Ottawa, spend an additional $8-million a year to increase the number of social workers, support workers and others serving First Nations in British Columbia by at least 92 full-time equivalent positions.

"I think the goal is really to work with on-reserve and off-reserve families of children that are in care – but really it's about a fiscal relationship," said Shane Gottfriedson, the Assembly of First Nations' B.C. regional chief. "You can't do anything without adequate resources … it's going to take collaboration, but most of all it's going to take some serious financial resources.

Mr. John's report is the latest attempt by the provincial government to address gaps and inequities in indigenous child-welfare policies and reverse the pattern of indigenous children being overrepresented in government care. Indigenous children currently account for about 60 per cent of kids in care in the province. But aboriginal children and youth comprise only about 9 per cent of British Columbia's total child and youth population, outgoing B.C. Representative for Children and Youth Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond said in a recent 10-year report card.

Over all, the number of indigenous and non-indigenous children in government care has declined significantly over the past decade. But that decline is greater – 45 per cent since 2007 – for non-indigenous children, than for indigenous children, whose numbers fell by 21 per cent over the same period.

During her tenure, Ms. Turpel-Lafond wrote several reports that criticized the province for how it was addressing the issue, including in a 2013 report in which she concluded the province had spent $66-million over the preceding 12 years on aboriginal discussions and projects with no evidence that service had improved as a result.

Ms. Turpel-Lafond also called repeatedly for more funding for social workers, saying front-line workers were stretched by trying to handle too many cases.

The report released Monday also called for a "new fiscal relationship" that would reflect an earlier decision by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.

This past January, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled that Ottawa discriminated against First Nations children by providing less money for welfare on reserves than is available to children in the rest of Canada. It also found the funding formula had resulted in an incentive to bring children into care.